Eating out with kids can be so great because it means you get a break from cooking. BUT: It can also be so incredibly stressful due to kids being, well, kids! We talk through some strategies you can use to make the eating out experience more enjoyable for everyone.

Toddler in restaurant highchair

Eating Out with Kids

When my first daughter was a baby, we tried taking her out to eat. Given that she was colicky, this was so nerve-wracking and we almost always opted for outdoor dining. It got even more challenging when she became a toddler who wanted to be moving, playing, and throwing all of the things. I’ve since had two more kids and have gotten better at eating in restaurants with kids (usually!).

Here are some things I’ve learned that might help you enjoy your food too. A lot of is simply about adjusting our expectations and remembering that it just won’t be the same as eating out is without kids, especially during the toddler years.

To start though, I think one big thing is to get the timing right. If it’s late and approaching your toddler’s bedtime, maybe consider doing takeout. After that, check out these tips.

Toys to Pack

Here are some basic, affordable items that can go a long way towards keeping the kids occupied at the table while you’re waiting for your food—or after they’re done but you’re still eating.

  • Melissa and Doug Water Wow books (these let the kids paint with water and are great for one and two year olds!)
  • Washi tape: Pull off little pieces and hand to the kiddo to play with. Or use them to make shapes on the table. This is usually a surprise hit with my kids!
  • Small books that you can look at and read together.
  • Small Duplo set to build with.
  • A matchbox car or two.

TIP: I typically only bring a few of these things so there isn’t a whole bag full of things for me to keep track of.

toddler with washi tape in restaurant

Gear to Pack

When eating out with a baby or one year old who’s going to be sitting in a highchair and eating too, I like to bring a silicone placemat (so they have a clean surface to eat from), a small baby spoon, their water cup, and a bib.

For kids over 2, I typically just bring their water cup. (Though I admit that I think I’ve pared way back now that I have three kids—I bet I packed more gear when I just had one!)

What to Do While You Wait for Food

You can take a walk outside, use some of the toys you brought, look at the menu together, eat some bread if there’s some on the table…take another walk…


Tips for Ordering

I 100% do not think that eating out has to be stressful as far as the food goes or that it needs to be a time to get the kids to try or eat certain foods. Keep things low pressure and choose something for a baby or one year old that you think they’ll like. For that age, I often ordered something for myself that I thought the little would like and shared it. This included burgers, enchiladas, chili, tomato soup, turkey sandwich, omelets, and the like.

You could also look at the list of side dishes and order one or two. Many places have simple foods like scrambled eggs, toast, fruit salad, edamame, and cottage cheese that can be easy kids meals.

For kids about age 2 and up, you can give them a choice of two foods and let them pick.

Do not stress if they don’t eat any veggies. It’s just one meal!

TIP: We go back and forth between the kids menu and sharing food from the regular menu. It may depend on the restaurant as to the best option.

How to Help a Selective Eater in a Restaurant

This can be a hard situation, especially if you order mac and cheese because your kiddo usually loves it…and it doesn’t look “right”.  This is a place where simple sides can help (like the bread basket or some fruit) and remember to ask the server to omit garnishes and put sauces on the side if that will help.

How to Enjoy Your Own Food

Here are a few tips to enjoy your meal, which can be really (really) hard with toddlers who often eat really quickly, may be tired, or may just not be in the mood to wait for you.

  • Take turns getting up and taking a walk with the kiddo.
  • Save a toy or two for after the meal so it’s fresh when you need to buy some time.
  • Load apps like Bubbles (which streams bubbles down the screen that the kids can pop) and Peekaboo Barn as last ditch options. (Put the volume way down low so anyone nearby doesn’t have to listen to cow’s mooing during their own meal!)
  • Choose a restaurant that’s loud and not too upscale so you don’t have to worry too much if your kiddo isn’t silent the whole time.

TIP: I also recently saw these activity boxes over on Busy Toddler and I’m obsessed with the idea. Sure, they sometimes might be dumped out and spilled on the floor, but I love the idea of a compact little kit filled with goodies to use only when in a restaurant.

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This post was first posted April 2019.

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